Scandinavian airline SAS released a controversial advertising video titled What is truly Scandinavian?

It claims that many things considered traditional in Scandinavian countries are actually borrowed from elsewhere. Particularly, at 0:48 it says

What about rye bread? It’s Turkish.

What is this claim based on? I always thought that rye is more typical for Northern European countries, while Southern Europe preferred wheat.

  • 13
    this claim is based on the fact that people from creative ad agencies quite often are not historically correct :P
    – shabunc
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 11:17
  • 1
    @shabunc - I like to think of The Truth as a fractal concept. Anything sufficiently complex that you can say is wrong at some lower level of detail. They appear to be trying to make a point about the value of things from outside of Scandinavia to the creation of Scandinavian culture, and at that level I'd say its a good point. I suspect any victims of the Vikings would have agreed with it. ;-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 12:44
  • 6
    @T.E.D. for me as an Armenian and therefore someone with Anatolian roots as well it sound very unfair to call rye bread Turkish ) on the other had the idea that the concept of "inherent" and "foreign" is quite often artificial is a good thing to remind anyways.
    – shabunc
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 12:47
  • 2
    @shabunc - I'd suggest assuming they meant the term geographically, not culturally. Its possible that in their language there aren't different terms, and even with native English speakers I daresay most people are used to using it geographically sometimes, and probably don't know what or where "Anatolia" is.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 12:51
  • 1
    Possible confusion of rye and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khorasan_wheat ?
    – Kaz
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 23:08

3 Answers 3


Q Is rye bread Turkish?

Are Swedes Africans?

If you find the 'African Swedes' question senseless, then you see the level of absurdity the ad is playing on. If you answer 'Swedes are Africans' in the affirmative, then Rye bread is Turkish' might have a broken and wobbly leg to stand on.

Swedes are humans, humans originate from Africa. True. But a long time passed since then.

Rye is archaeologically found in Anatolia, true, but at a time when Turkey and Turks were still far away in time and location. And even if we concede that rye was 'cultivated' – instead of being more like an invasive weed in wheat and barley fields – it was by no means a 'typical bread cereal' in that region.

Where there is wheat growing in good yields, wheat is preferred, especially for 'bread'. Bread in the sense of what we think of: yeast or sourdough raised, fluffy with crust. In that region a much flatter bread is still the typical. So 'neolithic' and 'bread' are not as closely connected as many might think.

Then there are some Swedish breads, unique to the region and also dependent on local yeast & bacterial 'fauna'. The sourdough compact ones aren't and weren't common in Anatolia.

The preference for ‘light’ breads, even when they are brown, drives modern industrial bakers to use the latest research in the biochemistry of fermenting dough to create recipes for whole-grain wheat and multigrain breads that are soft even though it is their nature to be dense. The virtual absence of 100 per cent wholemeal rye or even wholemeal wheat bread in most artisan bakeries (those of Germany and the other countries in northern Europe’s rye belt being the notable exceptions) is driven by their customers’ deep aversion to ‘clammy’ bread and the impossibility of making a light, wholewheat bread using artisan methods. Coarse flours produce denser breads than light flours and are almost unheard of in the modern baking trade. Long before there were texts explicitly favouring the light crumb of white breads over the dense crumb of brown breads, such as that by Thomas Cogan, the interest in a light crumb can be imputed by the apparently ancient association of wheat with elite breads.
— William Rubel: "Bread. A Global History", Reaktion Books: London, 2011.

The rye-belt, today, roughly:

enter image description here
From Rye production: Rye is an annual and winter hardy grass, grown extensively as a grain and forage crop. Rye originates from the area around the Black Sea and is primarily grown in an area known as the Rye Belt. It has been harvested for more than 6000 years, but it was around year 500 A.D. that cultivation of rye became important in Central Europe. Due to the plant's tolerance for less favourable growing conditions, it suppressed the growing of Barley, Wheat and Oats in certain areas. In the 12th and 13th centuries rye had progressed to be a major grain. In Germany it maintained its place as the major cereal until the Second World War.

Comparing wheat and rye

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here
— From USDA FAS: Crop Production Maps: Don't get distracted by colours alone, look at the actual numbers.

Finally, it is a really egregious short-circuited oversimplification to even tie rye to Anatolia, that is modern day Turkey, and then claim this for the Swedish type of bread:

  • The first archaeological find is in modern day Syria, Tell Abu Hureyra
  • Then it is almost entirely absent before re-entering the archaeological record; in Europe and much later
  • Suggesting that it was not really in use in the Near East, but entered Europe as a weed-like contaminant, but then showed its potential as hardier to the locals there, who developed, and had to develop techniques to make it digestible.
    Pliny is right when saying 'rye is bad for the stomach' (but still a nice animal fodder):
    like wheat it has gluten, but not as much as wheat for good fluffy bread; in difference to wheat it has much more plant toxins in it, like phytic acid, which is an antinutrient causing bloat etc, but which can be minimised with long sourdough treatment. The typical yeasts only or short sourdough process further South just doesn't cut it for rye. The amylases in rye would diminish the starch fluff structure and prevent crust formation, and the pentosans preventing gluten-based net structure from forming.

– Gordon Hillman: "On the Origins of Domestic rye: Secale Cereale: The Finds from Aceramic Can Hasan III in Turkey", Anatolian Studies, Vol. 28 (1978), pp. 157-174.

Actually preferring rye for an actual bread is by that logic a more (proto-) Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, but not Greek, Roman, Hittite, Turkish thing.

Rye is not as old as wheat, and there is no evidence of cultivated rye in ancient Egyptian monuments nor is it mentioned in any of the ancient writings. It is mentioned in early northern European writings, suggesting that it was first cultivated in this area. Rye grains found in Neolithic sites in Austria and Poland are considered to be of “wild” origin.
— W Bushuk: "Rye Production and Uses Worldwide", American Association of Cereal Chemists, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2001. (PDF)

If the first place with rye found near a human settlement is counted as 'the origin of Swedish rye bread' (and I abhor that definition apparently used in this ad), then it seems we have to say now: "No, 'rye' was a Syrian 'invention'" (or mishap, if you'd agree after eating just a tiny bit too much of not processed enough rye). And actual 'rye bread' came yet a bit later.

But as bold claims go, the comparatively unpopular rye is a difficult subject to make these anyway:

Compared with other cereals, little is known about rye’s history. Rye domestication has been studied using a combination of archaeobotany, genetics, pollen analysis, and biology. The earliest evidence of wild rye use comes from Epipaleolithic layers in the Syrian Tell sites of Mureybit (11,800–11,300 cal BP) and Abu Hureyra (12,700–11,100 cal BP). Seeds of domesticated rye appear in small quantities in the Turkish sites of Can Hassan III (9,450–8,450 cal BP) and are rare anywhere else in the Near East. The first evidence of the cultivation of rye as a dedicated crop comes from Alaca Höyük (ca. 4,000 BP). Turkey, Transcaucasia, Iran, and central Asia are assumed to be centers of domestication of rye, and it is likely that domesticated forms evolved more than once in these different areas.

It is still unclear which route rye followed as it was introduced into Europe: north of the Black and Caspian Seas into central Europe (and from here to the Balkans and Turkey), or along the Mediterranean route followed by the other Neolithic cereals. Most researchers agree that rye is a secondary crop that spread as a tolerated weed of wheat and barley. Wild ryes with a mutation conferring a tough rachis (the spine of the ear holding the spikelets) would have been picked up in small amounts with other grain. Rye’s resemblance to wheat and the inability to separate rye from other cereal grains through traditional winnowing allowed rye to be harvested and sown each growing season. The first European rye remains appear in Neolithic contexts in Italy (Sammardenchia, 7,550–6,450 cal BP), Slovakia (Šarišské Michal’any, 6,950–6,650 cal BP), and in Bronze Age settlements in central Europe. The “tolerated weed” status of rye is attested by the low percentage of grains found in European sites up to the Iron Age and by the frequent contamination of wheat/barley assemblages.

During the pre-Roman Iron Age, the distribution of rye expanded, and in many places farmers cultivated it exclusively. Researchers hypothesize that climate cooling in Europe in the first millennium BC favored rye’s survival over the cereals it was initially infesting, leading farmers to adopt it as a full crop as a result of its superior performance in cold years.

— Hugo R. Oliveira: "Rye", in Karen Bescherer Metheny & Mary C. Beaudry (Eds): "Archaeology of Food. An Encyclopedia", Rowman & Littlefield: New York, Boulder, 2015.

But for actual 'bread' as we'd expect it to be:

The oldest leavened and acidified bread is over 5,000 years old and was discovered in an excavation in Switzerland. The first documented production and consumption of sourdough bread can be traced back to the second millennium B.C.. Egyptians discovered that a mixture of flour and water, left for a bit of time to ferment, increased in volume and, after baking along with other fresh dough, it produced soft and light breads. Much later, microscopic observations of yeast as well as measurements of the acidity of bread from early Egypt demonstrate that the fermentation of bread dough involved yeasts and lactic acid bacteria – the leavening of dough with sourdough had been discovered. Eventually, the environmental contamination of dough was deliberately carried out by starting the fermentation with material from the previous fermentation process.
— Stefan Cappelle, Lacaze Guylaine, M. Gänzle, & M. Gobbetti: "History and Social Aspects of Sourdough", in: Marco Gobbetti & Michael Gänzle (Eds): "Handbook on Sourdough Biotechnology", Springer: New York, Heidelberg, 2013. (p2)

In short real rye bread only to prominence during late antiquity. Rye bread was only considered a real staple for most of the population through the Middle Ages. Many different types of rye grain have come from north-central and western and eastern Europe where there was a real interest in cultivating it en masse and for human bread. It was and is more typical for modern Regions of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Czech Lands. Turkish breads were more of an import type, and when employing rye at all, using a sourdough technology from the Balkans, which depends on much yeasts added to the bacteria and more wheat in the dough than rye (roughly 2 to 1).

Swedish sourdoughs for rye and rye-wheat consist mainly of Lb. acidophilus, Lb. brevis, Lb. delbrueckii, Lb. farciminis, Lb. fermentum, Lb. plantarum, Lb. rhamnosus, Lb. sanfranciscensis, W. viridescens.
Turkish wheat sourdoughs are dominated by C. divergens, Lb. acetotolerans, Lb. amylophilus, Lb. brevis, Lb. plantarum, Lb. sakei, P. acidilactici, P. pentosaceus, T. halophilus.

Indeed, Sweden is typically rye land, Turkey is typically wheat land. Notwithstanding that for example central highlands in Turkey have and had harsh climates and soils that might have been be more suitable for rye than wheat, such needs for feeding people never made rye more popular than wheat. Rye bread is a prophet dismissed in its home country: it is just not a Turkish invention that spread to Sweden.

The ad is in English and doesn't use anything like "from" but "It's Turkish", just like the meatballs thing. The latter really tied to Ottoman Turks and being even the 'official Swedish government position' on this. Despite food historians dismantling that as a myth as well. (A not so difficult task, since this 'minced meat' isn't that much of an invention, being featured numerous times in ancient recipes.

So what is that claim based on? An ad agency making a spot for an airline trying to emphasise how cosmopolitan, international and multi-cultural their customers should feel; and thus associate a company image with — by listing numerous additions to Swedish culture as 'adopted from elsewhere'.

While it is definitely true that cultures are evolving in a perpetual run-around of interchange, borrowing this and appropriating that, this ad gets too sloppy. It is inappropriate and completely ahistorical and anachronistic to construct a cultural 'Turkish' image of an unbroken tradition for 'rye bread' — as if that would go back to the epipaleolithic in that approximate region – and then the Swedes as 'receiving the gift of rye bread' 'from Turks'; or even geographically as 'originating in the form as we know it now from the region of modern day Turkey'. Too long timeframe, too many steps and changes in the meantime, misused terminology, too many deviations from this theory of ethnic tradition to make it work. Instead of correctly just rejecting an often misguided trust, faith and pride in supposedly 'typical and national traditions', that the ad highlights as false, it creates and reproduces these myths, only attributed to 'other traditions', just as wrongly.

But of course, if this ad was to be broadcast on Radio Yerevan, Q "Is rye bread Turkish?" Would be answered with: "Yes! Yes, of course. But it was not made from rye, and the rye wasn't cultivated, and they didn't make bread from it, and it also wasn't Turkish."

  • 12
    Radio Yerevan, Turkey... I see what you did there. And I like it.
    – talex
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 12:39

Well rye itself (the grain) appears to have first been domesticated in Anatolia, around 6,500 BC. So of course Neolithic people there (modern Turkey) would have been the first to make rye bread.*

As for why it became popular in Scandinavia, that probably shouldn't be a mystery either. The European staple grains of wheat, barley, and rye are all closely related. However, of the 3 rye is the hardiest in the face of winter weather and poor soils. This is also why it is widely grown in Canada.

Rye grows well in much poorer soils than those necessary for most cereal grains. Thus, it is an especially valuable crop in regions where the soil has sand or peat. Rye plants withstand cold better than other small grains do. Rye will survive with snow cover that would otherwise result in winter-kill for winter wheat.

I'm not an expert on Scandinavian soil quality, but I do understand they have pretty serious winters up there.

* - Modern Turks of course are the cultural descendants not of those Neolithic Anatolians, but rather of a people who were at the time living on the eastern end of the Eurasian steppe.

  • 1
    No, not serious winters in Denmark on average (prevailing westerlies - the wind has to come from easterly directions and even then the sea moderates it). The last cold winter was in 2011/2012, and in the last two winters it very unusually has only snowed one single time (and this winter, defined as December, January, and February, will see a new temperature record of +5.0 °C average temperature since measurements started in 1874)), but that is a different story. Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 23:02
  • 1
    @PeterMortensen: "Cold" has different meaning for people than for plants. Wheat's ideal growing temperature is 21-24 °C; Denmark's hottest average month is July, and it's only 17 °C (warm enough to grow wheat, but not particularly fast), and when it drops to -10 °C, even briefly, most wheat cultivars die en masse. Winter rye, by contrast, can grow (if not fast) down to 1 °C, and can survive frosts down to nearly -35 °C. Denmark isn't cold, but neither is it warm, and wheat likes warm, while rye is fine with merely "temperate". Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 1:29

Maybe No! People in northern France and England started just because to eat a great deal of 'rye bread'. They didn't have a favorable opinion of it – they called rye bread "black bread" and whined about eating it rather than "white bread" produced using refined wheat flour.

  • 3
    Welcome to History:SE. Your answer would be greatly improved if you edit to include sources to support your assertions. Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 20:17
  • This is close to gibberish (incomprehensible), especially the first sentence. Can you fix it? Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 23:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.